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Michael Cimino
Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston , Brad Dourif, Isabelle Huppert, Joseph Cotten, Jeff Bridges
Writing Credits:
Michael Cimino

The only thing greater than their passion for America ... was their passion for each other.

A breathtaking depiction of the promise and perils of America’s western expansion, Heaven’s Gate, directed by Michael Cimino, is among Hollywood’s most ambitious and unorthodox epics. Kris Kristofferson brings his weathered sensuality to the role of a Harvard graduate who relocates to Wyoming as a federal marshal; there, he learns of a government-sanctioned plot by cattle barons to kill the area’s European settlers for their land. The resulting battle is based on the bloody real-life Johnson County War of 1892. Also starring Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Walken, Heaven’s Gate is a savage and ravishingly shot take on western movie lore. This release presents the full director’s cut, letting viewers today see Cimino’s potent original vision

Box Office:
$44 million.
Opening Weekend
$12.032 thousand on 2 screens.
Domestic Gross
$3.484 million.

Rated NR

Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 216 min.
Price: $49.95
Release Date: 11/20/2012

• “Cimino and Carelli” Interview
• “Kris Kristofferson” Interview
• “David Mansfield” Interview
• “Michael Stevenson” Interview
• Restoration Demonstration
• Teaser and TV Spot
• Booklet


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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Heaven's Gate: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1980)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 11, 2012)

When I did an Internet search for “biggest movie flops of all-time”, plenty of cinematic duds appeared. One showed up on virtually every list: 1980’s Heaven’s Gate. Michael Cimino’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning Deer Hunter, the movie came in radically over-budget, pulled in almost no money, received brutal reviews and essentially crippled Cimino’s career and the studio that released it.

It’s hard to judge the biggest bomb ever, but given all those factors, Gate might qualify. When a suicidal cult adopts a film’s name, that might be a sign that it was an unmitigated disaster.

While it’s clear that Gate will always maintain its reputation as a horrific failure, some critical reappraisal has occurred over the last 32 years, partially due to a “Director’s Cut” of the film. This adds 67 minutes to the movie’s original 149-minute running time and will be the subject of this review.

Initially set in 1870, we see the Harvard graduation of James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt). After that, we leap ahead 20 years and re-encounter Averill as a sheriff in a Wyoming +territory dominated by immigrants from Eastern Europe who attempt new lives as farmers. To survive, the new arrivals sometimes steal cattle, which the powers that be punish in a severe manner.

Back in the state capital of Casper, members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) create a list of 125 “thieves, anarchists and outlaws” they’ll use agents to slaughter. Even though his old pal Irvine belongs to the association, he can’t persuade the others to use less severe measures to curtail cattle rustling. Averill warns Canton to keep these men out of his territory, which sets up future confrontations.

In addition, we see Averill’s relationship with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), the madam at a local brothel. They seem to love each other, but another man interferes, as Association foreman Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken) also has designs on Ella. This leads toward conflicts on multiple levels.

Even though I was only 13 when Gate first hit screens, I knew about its notoriety and failure. Like most people, though, I didn’t actually see the movie – and that didn’t change until this Criterion Blu-ray ended up in my possession.

Given the film’s bad rap, it became awfully hard to view it through unbiased eyes. I knew nothing about story or characters; I was aware it was a Western but that was the extent of my pre-viewing knowledge. Nonetheless, the stench of 32 years attached to Gate created a fair amount of skepticism in me as I launched the movie.

It probably didn’t help that I never liked Deer Hunter. I found it to be rambling and self-indulgent, so this didn’t lead me to have hopes that the much-derided Gate would fare better.

Alas, my fears essentially came true, though for a while, I thought Gate might offer something pretty immersive. The film starts slowly, as the Harvard sequence seems to be essentially superfluous. Yes, it sets up some themes/character notions, but these don’t pay off in a strong enough way to justify the time they fill; I think the flick would work better if it jumped straight ahead to 1890 and didn’t bother with the college graduation.

Once we get to Wyoming, though, the film shows promise. In a manner atypical of Cimino’s MO, Gate sets up its setting and circumstances in a tight, involving manner that lets us get interested in the issues we follow. Sure, it’s all pretty typical for a Western, but that’s fine; it doesn’t need to reinvent any genre wheels.

When we meet Ella, though, the entire soufflé starts to collapse. This is where Cimino becomes more and more self-indulgent, as the movie’s pace slows to a crawl to let us spend time with Ella, Averill and Champion. Massive amounts of cinematic real estate become devoted to long, meandering scenes between/among these characters.

That would be fine if these sequences did much to develop the roles and relationships, but they don’t. Like Terrence Malick, Cimino appears to be in love with his landscape, so we’re subject to long, languid shots of the Wyoming terrain.

And it looks great, but it doesn’t create an interesting story. Gate doesn’t manage to give us intriguing material to attach to its lovely visuals. The characters don’t really develop, so we’re stuck with them for long patches that go nowhere.

As I watched Gate, I began to wish I’d seen the 149-minute version. I believe the film sorely needs editing to reduce its massive amounts of flab and superfluous material, but since it had a much-loathed shorter edition, it would look like I’m wrong.

Perhaps I am incorrect – perhaps any abridged take on Gate would be as flawed as the 1980 cut apparently was. Or perhaps the problems were specific to that particular version and a different edit would fix them.

I don’t know, but I can’t help but feel that Gate contains a good movie desperate to escape from these meandering confines. At its best, it gives us an interesting Western, but the film too often wanders off course and engages in self-indulgent material. Gate has potential that it doesn’t fulfill.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B/ Audio C+/ Bonus C+

Heaven’s Gate appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. This was an inconsistent but usually positive presentation.

Sharpness was generally fine. Occasional shots seemed soft, but that wasn’t a big issue. Overall clarity was good, as the majority of the movie was fairly accurate and concise. No issues with shimmering or jaggies popped up, and edge haloes were absent. I noticed no digital noise reduction, but a handful of specks and hairs cropped up during the film.

The palette of Gate came across well here. The movie gave the colors a subdued but natural look that seemed positive throughout the flick. Blacks were reasonably deep and firm, and shadows demonstrated nice clarity and visibility. Overall, I thought the image merited a “B“.

Although the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack sported good ambition, it suffered from some erratic sonics. Speech was one of the up and down factors, as dialogue could sometimes come across as sibilant and reedy. The lines remained intelligible and were occasionally fairly natural, but they lacked consistency and could be rough.

Effects came with similar issues. At best, they demonstrated reasonable accuracy, but they also often came across as dense and murky. Music worked best, as the score managed to be full and rich.

At least the soundfield worked well for its age. The mix concentrated on the front speakers, so don’t expect a lot from the surrounds; they added some general reinforcement but not much more. However, the forward channels delivered good stereo music and effects, so those broadened across the spectrum in an engaging manner. I liked that side of the mix, but the issues with audio quality knocked down my grade to a “C+”.

All of the set’s extras pop up on Disc Two, and these mainly focus on a collection of interviews. Across these, we hear from director Michael Cimino and producer Joann Carelli (30:57), actor Kris Kristofferson (9:23), soundtrack arranger/performer David Mansfield (8:45), and second assistant director Michael Stevenson (8:04). Cimino/Carelli offers an audio piece accompanied by various stills/outtakes, while the others deliver more traditional on-camera chats.

Across these, we learn about the history behind the movie’s story and its adaptation, narrative/character/script areas, cast and performances, sets and locations, costumes and period elements, stunts and Western elements, research/realism, camerawork and action scenes, editing and the Director’s Cut, music, Cimino’s work on the shoot, reactions to the film in 1980 and its legacy.

Of the four pieces, it comes as no surprise that the Cimino/Carelli chat gives us the most meat – though don’t expect balance, as Cimino dominates. The director tells us quite a lot about the movie and makes me wish he’d done a full commentary. The other three throw in nice observations/insights as well to flesh out the movie’s creation.

In addition to a teaser trailer and a TV spot, we get a Restoration Demonstration. It runs two minutes, 30 seconds and shows the methods used to create the Blu-ray’s transfer. This isn’t a fascinating reel, but it delivers some decent facts.

The set finishes with a 40-page booklet. It contains an essay from film writer Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan and a 1980 American Cinematographer interview with Cimino. Criterion produces great booklets and this one fits their mold.

Does Heaven’s Gate deserve the intensely negative reputation its endured for the last 32 years? No – at least not in its 216-minute cut, a version that substantially alters the 149-minute edition that hit theaters in 1980. However, the movie doesn’t prompt consideration as a lost classic, either; while it has potential for greatness, Gate only sporadically achieves a high level of quality, as it's too often meandering and slow. The Blu-ray comes with generally good picture, erratic audio and a small but fairly informative package of bonus elements. I’m glad I finally saw Gate after all these years, but I can’t say the movie merits attention as anything more than a cinematic missed opportunity.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.3 Stars Number of Votes: 10
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